Small Boxes, Big Ideas

I’ve been on something of a small game bender recently, so it was an absolute thrill to come back from PAX East with three titles from the Tokyo series: Tokyo Jidohanbaiki, Tokyo Jutaku, and Tokyo Metro. Our board gaming community has no small lament for the size of the average game box these days, many containing large amounts of air and acting as much a billboard on the shelf of your local game store as much as a place to store components. Whether stuffing limited cargo space for a trip or just getting the most games into your bag for game night, small box games pack a lot of appeal. They’re easy to carry and typically sport a very reasonable price point given their footprint.

I’ve talked in no small measure recently about other awesome, tiny titles like Antinomy and Hokkaido, and the Tokyo series is going right up there on that same shelf ! This review is going to be something a little different however, as it’s a triple feature in which we’ll take a brief look at all three! Read on if you’re wondering which ones might suit your gaming group best, or feel free to hop to a particular section if you’ve been itching to hear more about one in particular.

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Together they take less space than most single games on my shelf. But they pack so much game each!

Tokyo Jidohanbaiki

This vending machine themed game is, at its heart, a toolbox. It’s a set of cute little pieces that can be configured into all kinds of games, not all of them necessarily using every component. In the box you get some cardboard currency, 6 yellow crates (each able to hold 6 drinks), a bag of said drinks in 6 different color and size combinations, two sets of cards representing each color and drink type in the game, and a really neat little vending machine that works a bit like a cube tower; that is, you drop things down it, but not all of them always come out of the bottom. In theory. More on that in a minute.

Jordan Draper is listed as a game designer for Tokyo Jidohanbaiki, along with ten other people. You see, each game in the rulebook is completely different, and some of them come from the minds of completely different designers! Each plays in anywhere from 10 minutes to around 30 minutes, and there is a complexity gauge next to each title, letting you know what you’re in for at a glance. The spread of games in this box is pretty varied, so one moment you could be enjoying a no-luck, thinky game of shifting the board and jumping pieces (Grape Soda) and the next you’re playing Poker with the drink combinations (5 Can Stub). If it’s sheer variety in a single box you’re after, this game is hard to top.

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This game is a cornucopia of components.

You might already see where I’m going with this, in terms of criticism. We found that not all games were created equal, at least as far as personal tastes go. While that in itself isn’t a deal breaker, my play group did notice one major hiccup in that the vending machine component didn’t really seem to add the promised randomization we all anticipated. Will you lose drinks when you toss them down the machine? In practice, the answer was almost always “no”. It has very slick surfaces, and with the bottles also being plastic we noticed that whether you put them through one at a time or by the handful, only one or two drinks per game would ever get stuck (usually the square-sided bottles for obvious reasons). There’s some talk floating around the internet that the designer’s prototype may have actually been more rough, leading to greater random outputs, and that the production copy doesn’t preserve this. The bottom line unfortunately is that we found any games that used the vending machine to be a lot less fun than those that eschewed it.

Overall, I still think Tokyo Jidohanbaiki is a great small box game, even with the vending machine issues. From cerebral strategy to wacky antics, there’s something for everyone in this box; you can check out the rules here if you’re curious how many of these games might click with you. With board games being objects that appeal to our tactile and visual senses in all the best ways, this game really does feel like a little box of toys. When setting it out, I almost feel like a kid dumping out a bucket of Lego bricks again, the possibilities as vast as anything I could imagine and build. And nothing stops you from inventing your own games if you’ve played through everything in the book. After all, that’s what it was designed to do. If the vending machine issue sounds like it will hold you back from enjoying half the games that come in the book, I’ve had some friends suggest spray glue plus sand to roughen the inside of the thing. Or just wait for a second printing to address the issue.

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An actual Jidohanbaiki. You can see how the game's components really capture the real life counterpart.

Tokyo Jutaku

Insert my meme here for Monty Python’s “and now for something completely different.” We’re shifting gears from the world of modular components into a real time dexterity game. In Tokyo Jutaku you take on the role of architects competing to secure contracts around the city with your designs. In as little time as it takes to browse and teach the rules to a new game in Jidohanbaiki, it takes even less time to teach Jutaku! Quite simply, each player moves their piece around the play area to claim a card they intend to build on. Then everyone builds as frantically as they can while still obeying piece placement rules, yelling “stop” when they think they’ve succeeded. Each card has a requirement for the number of pieces you need to use in your building, as well as the number of “floors” you need to stack up. Everyone else checks your work to see if it meets the card requirements or violates any placement rules, and if you succeed you keep the card, scoring its money value at the end of the game. The game is over as soon as anyone has 4 cards claimed. We could practically play a game right now!

And those pieces? Just see how wonderfully quirky they are for yourself.

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They are each unique, so if someone swipes a particular piece you need, you'd better find another that works!

As with the previous title, the components for this game are very high quality. The jigsaw pieces all have lacquered, smoothed edges, making them a pleasant surprise over the cheaper plywood feel I was originally expecting looking at them from a distance. The building cards have an easy and a difficult side (“difficult” being a relative term because I’m objectively terrible at this game either way), so you can step up the challenge as needed. And there’s a surprising amount of strategy that reveals itself as you get better at playing; you can steal pieces others might want if you’re quick, and there’s always the risk of going for higher-scoring cards at the cost of being undercut by cheaper but faster to build cards taken by your opponents.

Being bad at this game doesn’t stop me from absolutely loving it. This one’s been a total hit at my local game nights, and because of the aforementioned ease of travelling with small box games it’s become a pretty much permanent addition to my game night bag. It’s thrilling every time we play it. If you’re already a lover of dexterity or real-time games, I really can’t recommend this one highly enough. And even if you’re not, as long as the concept doesn’t put you off I’d still encourage you to give it a try if a friend breaks it out.

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You have an architech piece you move around the board, so you have to work your way towards other cards you want gradually.

Tokyo Metro

To round out our look at the Tokyo series, here is the weighty game of the three, with Tokyo Metro being billed as “the heavy eurogame” of the series. Typically, eurogames are described as dense, crunchy, and involving little to no luck while playing a bit like multiplayer solitaire. I’m going to cry foul on that description, though. This game, while crunchy in strategy and involving little luck, is anything but stuffy solitaire. This is a game about developing stations and running trains, but also it’s about buying stock in those train lines and speculating on others you don’t intend to pounce on. Essentially this is an economic game about piggybacking the hard work of the other players, mooching off their efforts, and swiping the food off other players’ plates before they can eat it.

In Tokyo Metro, players slot their action disks onto an ever-advancing conveyer belt of action cards, allowing them to move, build stations that will advance scoring, run trains, buy stock, take loans, and do a few other classic worker placement things like buy extra workers or obtain discounts for other actions.

At game’s end, speculations and stocks pay out, and the person with the most money wins. It’s a pretty classic formula, but in practice, I really enjoyed some of the subtleties that made this game its own. The actions, for example, have stage one, two, and three cards, but those are shuffled within their respective stacks so the order is always a little uncertain. What I particularly liked about these actions, as well, is that some give you the choice to spend extra worker tokens for a cheaper money cost associated with those actions; money in this game is difficult to come by, so managing how much you’re willing to pay for things is a brilliant little consideration and a wonderful decision in its own right.

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Playing on a round table that evening was not ideal. Despite the small box, this game takes up as much table as any regular strategy game.

I group this game firmly in the category of “easy to teach, hard to master.” Again, while it’s billed as the heavy eurogame of the series, the game itself isn’t really all that heavy to learn. The complexity comes in all the interactions which, while numerous, never seem to overcomplicate or bog down the game as they never overstep the already simple and straightforward rules. Do you build a station first and tip your hand on the trains you want, or do you buy stock and start that train running before you can profit from it? Do you take a card from the discard pile for personal use, only to lose priority for the hefty discount space? When is a good time to mooch someone else’s train stock? Is speculation an early game gamble or late game hedging? Nevermind all the different ways the action cards make you shift priorities based on the order they show up. It's a deceptive little twist that doesn’t hit you reading the rulebook but strikes you like lightning during play as the agonizing choices, as well as potential combos, set in.

It’s no lie to say that you’ll see a wide range of possibilities if you keep open eyes and an open mind while playing. You’ll speed up some train lines to maximize their performance, only to still see stock falling miserably short on some while it booms on others. You can, in a brilliant touch, actually have your worker on the main board ride the trains as they pass your stop, jumping you much more efficiently across the board and adding a layer of spatial depth to what would otherwise just be a point engine. You will boost someone else’s stock, earning money off their lines, just to speculate them and undercut their profits in the last few turns! This game is surprisingly devious, it’s in-your-face, and yet it never overcomplicates things with bogged down rules; a couple of hours flew by like they were nothing, and if you play this game a lot I could easily see turns taking seconds and whole games taking just over an hour, if that. As highly interactive, economic games go, you’ll be hard pressed to find one that’s both this easy to teach at a local game night and equally as portable.

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Bro, do you even train?

Conclusion

This article has gone on for quite a while already, and there are still things I haven’t covered. For example, you can combine pieces of some of these games with those of others to make “expansions” for the base games. Jidohanbaiki is the one primarily used for its small, modular components in adding additional systems to other titles, though there is one game that combines all three titles (found in the Jidohanbaiki rulebook). This is a neat touch, and I really think it adds value to the set if you end up getting more than one of these games. But their potential in combination doesn’t change my main recommendation: buy them for what they are individually. Each of these games has a unique feel and fits a completely different niche, so I’d still recommend making any purchasing decisions based on each individual game’s merits and what you’re looking for more of in your gaming life.

Whichever titles you think might be a good addition to your game gatherings, know that what you get in their boxes is worth the price. These titles are a bit more expensive than your typical small box fare, but what you get for that price are high quality components, clear and concise rulebooks, and sturdy, thick boxes that will withstand all the travel you put them through. A lot of thought went into all three of these titles, and perhaps with the exception of Jidohanbaiki’s vending machine all the components are top notch. I could easily see any of these games on your gaming shelf, so take a look at the ones that you think might suit your collection best. Or heck, if you love the look of them all and can’t decide, just give all three a go!